RESEARCH ARCHITECTURE  -  Monday August 10th, 2009

A mapping exercise I executed on the zoning and usage of Gennevilliers.

Today’s post primarily consists of excerpts from an article by Mark Foster Gage (Assistant Professor at Yale), entitled ‘In defense of design’ – from Log 16 – and the subject is the demise of architectural precedents in contemporary design theory. It struck a particular chord with me, and it touches on one of the questions Millennium People is most interested in: to what extent (if any) does architecture have the power to shape society? Is even the most daring utopic design merely a reactive solution to pre-existing social (or other) problems? Can architecture ever really be a revolutionary expression of a civilisation’s desire for improvement?

The architectural line is now defensible only if it is the direct result of an act of analysis, of a process, a mapping exercise, or just about any manipulation of data emerging from any body of factors. This contemporary emphaisis on process and analysis is largely the product of a drift in architectural theory from linguistic and poststructural models to what… is commonly being referred to as “research architecture”.

While nobody was watching, the actual research of “research architecture” as a theory intended to reinforce our understanding of architecture in larger globl contexts – whether geospatial, social, political, economic, ethnic, or other – was diluted, mixed with artificial sweeteners, packaged with witty icons and hairline vectors, and sold cheaply in the world’s design schools, not only as a new line of thought, but also as the newest and most harmonious of architectural chorus lines.

There are clearly historical arguments to be made for “research architecture as theory, however few the precedents may be. But there is no such precedent for the trickle-down Reaganomics of “research architecture” as practice, which is only a reflection of a wholly contemporary architectural culture based on the easy, the quick, and the convincing, and on the frequent – at times even sincere – yet mistaken assumption that we are always more powerful in dealing with social injustice or inequality in our role as architects than in our roles as citizens or activists.

It should also not be forgotten that architecture has functioned historically not only as a record of change but also as an instigator of change, and any architecture dedicated to solving problems discovered within an existing organisational system is therefore partially complicit in sustaining the status quo of that system – or at the very least relegates itself to the weaker position of subverting existing standards instead of optimistically endorsing new ones.

When I was at school I was told, by dusty relics of the post-war Modernist push, that they were surprised to discover their architecture had a lot less influence on society than they had expected. Will it be the same for those of the profession that have strayed too far into the meaningless end of “research architecture”? Gage states that “research architecture” demands only information, “which today is as ubiquitous as asphalt”, while the use of architectural precedents requires knowledge and “a dedicated understanding of the historical lineage of architecture – hard things to come by with a quick Google search.” The real point Gage is trying to make is that while the collective informatic resources of the profession are growing exponentially, those of the individual are waning. This is not unique to architecture. As access to information becomes ever more instant and easy, so our propensity to forget what we consider superfluous becomes more puissant. That is, we do not retain the results of our searches: we are erasing (or blocking) our own internal cookies.

A map of the Ile-de-France region indicating the plateaux, cliff edges and valley bottoms. I did this image while working on the competition for Grand Paris.

  1. Stan says:

    this essay by Gage seems really interesting~